Fire hoses greeted the planes ferrying No. 1 Clemson and No. 4 Oklahoma to South Florida on Saturday for Thursday’s Capital One Orange Bowl College Football Playoff semifinal.
The water arcs through which the planes rolled were for flair, not fire, although Clemson did arrive at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Miami time because of mechanical issues. Otherwise, each arriving contingent of players and coaches accepted the usual oranges, fielded the expected questions and boarded the waiting buses.
Oklahoma came off the plane looking like a team after practice ready to head for Wednesday class — dressed neatly but not formally. Clemson disembarked in suits, the not-so-subtle signal that this trip to Miami was the now-clichéd business trip. And the Tigers handled their business in the classroom, apparently — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said the Tigers suffered “no academic casualties.”
Said Swinney: “This is like a season opener all over again. We have had 10 days to get everybody ready. We wanted to be here when the season started. And now we have one goal left and that is to win the Orange Bowl.”
The Tigers’ last time down, the 58-0 blasting of the University of Miami on Oct. 24, played out less like a business trip than the office retreat to end all office retreats. To find a time Clemson so humiliated a program with a proud football history, you have to go all the way back to the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl.
Clemson 40, Oklahoma 6.
“It’s two different years, two different ball teams,” Oklahoma senior wide receiver Sterling Shepard said. “You’ve got different guys on the team that can make plays. It feels completely different than last year.”
Shepard said that not just because Oklahoma hits Miami as the Big 12 champion playing for a spot in the CFP championship game instead of arriving in Orlando as an 8-4 team playing for pride. It feels different for him personally.
Shepard’s father, Derrick Shepard, also wore No. 3, from 1983 to ’86, starting his last three years for Oklahoma teams that made the Orange Bowl. Derrick Shepard died of a heart attack in 1999 at 35.
“[His mother, Cheri Shepard] was always praying I would play in the Orange Bowl,” he said. “My dad played in it, and it’s definitely something I wanted to do.”
As for the team, the senior leader said Oklahoma was not going flat during the break between the end of the regular season and the bowl game as it did last year.
“The team who can keep their energy the longest is the one that’s going to come out on top,” he said. “We did a great job this past week coming out to practice with energy. They were the best practices I’ve been a part of since I’ve been here.”
Funny enough, Swinney said, “We had one of the best practices we had all year this Saturday.”
Clemson has a mixed history in the game. The Tigers won a national championship in the Orange Bowl a lifetime and a stadium ago, Jan. 1, 1982. Orange-clad Clemson looked out of place in the game 30 years later, giving up 70 points to West Virginia. Some of the same cast came back to win a thrilling shootout against Ohio State two years ago.
Although the national championship for the 1981 team didn’t totally reshape the program’s image, this one might.
“It’s a big game, it’s a big game for our team and it’s a big game for ourselves,” Clemson defensive end Kevin Dodd said.
The warmer-than-usual December and 2:30 p.m. start Thursday means South Florida’s hot and chewy atmosphere could take on the most prominent role since the Orange Bowl moved to prime-time with the legendary Texas-Alabama game on Jan. 1, 1966.
(Alabama quarterback Joe Namath’s already terrible knees kept him from starting. Some accounts say Texas coach Darrell Royal warned his players against going after Namath’s knees. Namath entered the game before halftime and led a stirring comeback. Texas still won 21-17 after stopping him on a fourth-quarter quarterback sneak from the 1).
“We had the heat cranked up in our indoor [practice field]. A little different here, though,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said.
How high? “As high as it would go.”
Russell Quinoa contributed to this report